Starting Fires, Cooking For A Community, and No Internet: Andrew Stern ’19 and Vivien Qiao ’19 on Their Experience at The Mountain School

While most Andover students might spend their Spring Term afternoons lounging on the Great Lawn, competing in athletics, or catching up on homework, Andrew Stern ’19 and Vivien Qiao ’19 spent theirs swinging axes and milking cows. These activities were only a few of the their chores at The Mountain School, a selective independent semester program in rural Vermont that Stern and Qiao attended from the middle of Winter Term to the end of Spring Term during the 2017-2018 school year.

The Mountain School, a hybrid boarding school and working farm in Vershire, Vt., allows 45 Uppers to spend a semester learning and engaging with their surroundings. Although Stern and Qiao made the decision to attend The Mountain School for different reasons, they were both drawn in by the prospect of stepping out of their comfort zones and trying something new.

“You’re on a farm in Vermont for one semester, which is half the [school] year here. It’s a different kind of experience and I wanted to try something new so I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll apply and see what happens.’ And then when I got in, I was like, ‘Sweet, why not?’ ” said Qiao.

According to Qiao, her life was drastically different at The Mountain School, especially since she had to adjust to living on a rural farm after living in the suburbs. The small size of the school helped her navigate these differences, and she described the community as a second family.

Stern said had an easier time adjusting, and particularly enjoyed some of The Mountain School’s diversions from normal Andover life.

“The ability for that community to work in a dynamic and inclusive way was really remarkable, and something that I wish Andover could do more of. Everybody was included in the decisions that were made and in the reasoning behind those and the students really had a voice in a way that I feel like we don’t at Andover,” Stern said.

At The Mountain School, Stern and Qiao learned about the importance of community responsibility, especially due to the school’s small staff. In addition to balancing challenging coursework with farm chores, they had to prepare food for the community and gather wood for heating.

Qiao said, “Being at Andover, you don’t really realize how much work is being put into all the things you do in your daily life. Heating up the school, I’ve never done it, which is crazy. We take heat for granted. So when you actually have to do it yourself, you really know all the effort that’s being put in. Also for food, we would always have to prep the food and then the chefs would cook it… I remember we were just peeling carrots and chopping them.You’re just so much more aware. When you see [the food] for dinner, you’re like, oh my gosh, I did that.”

“[At The Mountain School], we were allowed and, in many cases, encouraged, to make what we wanted in the kitchen pretty much whenever we want or whenever we were available. I don’t think anybody is allowed to enter any of the kitchens at Andover, and I think that something that I’ve heard since my [Junior] year is that we don’t have enough opportunities to build practical skills like baking. Baking Club, for instance, can’t access our kitchens, which is definitely a hindrance,” said Stern.

Qiao and Stern also experienced a form of freedom that they described as being remarkably different from Andover. According to both students, the entire student community at the Mountain School was involved in running the school and making decisions, something more difficult for a school like Andover, with around 1,200 students, to implement.

Stern said, “Coming back to Andover, the level of restriction on us was something I found. The rigidity of the system on a large scale was something that kind of struck me. Again, this may be a product of trying to manage 1,000 students instead of less than 50, but our inability to do certain things at this school that I was able to do there in what is, in every way, a much more dangerous environment, is something that struck me.”

In order to follow The Mountain School’s academic schedule, Stern and Qiao spent all of Fall Term at Andover and then left halfway through Winter Term. Without having finished their classes Winter Term, they did not receive final Winter Term grades on their transcripts.

“I basically had a term in which I could take whatever I wanted and have no grades for it, which was actually one of the more interesting experiences of the whole thing. Such as, ‘How do you apply yourself when you’re not doing it for a grade, you’re just doing it because you want to?’ I found that I was able to do more of what I wanted to be able to. I still worked in my classes, it was still an interesting and fun experience, but I wasn’t dying over homework,” said Stern.

At first, Qiao was hesitant to go to The Mountain School in case the program affected her studies, but she quickly realized that this wouldn’t be a problem.

“They help you with all the college counseling stuff, so you don’t have to worry about falling behind or anything. The teachers are amazing there, they really challenge you. I wouldn’t say that it was a lot easier compared to Andover. You’re still being challenged, just in different ways. You’ll think differently, you’ll do applications of what you’re learning,” said Qiao.

Stern and Qiao both agreed that the rural setting provided much time for self reflection. They described being able to take time out of their busy days to pause and take a break from thinking. This mindful practice helped them deal with the stresses of being at The Mountain School, and continues to help them at Andover.

Qiao said, “Being at Andover you’re always so strung up and you’re always working and there’s never a time where you can just stop and take a second. But I think it is important to just clear your mind. Before going to the Mountain School, I don’t think that’s something I ever did… Stress is fine but make sure you take the time, even for a minute, to just stop thinking and appreciate everything you have know that everything you’re doing is gonna be worth it.”